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Aëla Labbé: Using Photography and Dance to Understand Herself

Alll images © Aëla Labbé, courtesy of the artist

Aëla Labbé moved to Amsterdam from her idyllic family home in Brittany to study contemporary dance. Once there she started using photography to express her struggles with emancipation. The result is a body of work whose fusion of influences gives it an ethereal quality.

“Photography does not make me less of a dancer, and dance does not make me less of a photographer,” says Aëla Labbé. “They are both my means of expression.” These dual artistic inclinations converge to create a body of work that’s fluid, at times ambiguous, and which defies easy interpretation.

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Labbé grew up in the countryside in Saint-Nolff, a region in northwest France with a strong Celtic heritage. Her childhood not only informs the way she views the world, it also greatly informs her work.

Hers was an unconstrained youth, the youngest of five children let loose in nature to catch tadpoles, swim in the river, pick wildflowers and watch chicks hatch. The family would spend summers in Romania, a nation rich with folklore, and experiences that, Labbé says, “awoke all her senses”. “The food, the music, the smell, the colours – everything about Romania has enriched my life.”

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At 19 she moved to Holland from her home in the wilds of Brittany to study contemporary dance at the Amsterdam School of Arts and soon after turned her lyrical eye towards photography, inspired by what she describes as “a dark moment” in her life. “I had a burning desire to create, and photography was my way to respond to that.”

Her work, which has a fantastical, almost ethereal, quality is inspired in no small part by this rich collection of influences and experiences. Much like her childhood, it transcends boundaries, it follows no conventions. According to her website, “a nostalgic glimpse of the past flows through the photographer’s imagined present”, to the point where nostalgia and ‘the now’ merge imperceptibly.

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“My work doesn’t really ‘fit’ any genre of photography. It’s not a deliberate style that’s easily categorised. I don’t feel like I am making conscious choices, so I don’t believe I have cultivated a particular style.”

Indeed, her first monograph, L’Absente, published by Les Éditions Du Lic, incorporates a body of work made between 2009-2013. It plays out like a tale of enchantment, where incantation meets corporeality, where childhood meets adulthood.

It has no linear narrative but instead a poetic strain. She says of this work: “There is an absence of all meaning: the missing, the disappeared, the invisible, or simply the out of sight.

“When I made L’Absente, it was at a time in my life when I started to emancipate from my family. I was searching. There was a split between post-adolescence and maturity, between my home country and the country of my residence, and between two artistic mediums – dance and photography.”

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Labbé is an intuitive photographer – she shoots what she feels. “I don’t storyboard; instead, I offer my subjects a framework in which they are free to move, to propose. I try to be in the moment, which for me is like dance improvisation. My inspiration comes from nature, movement, emotions, fragility. Oftentimes things escape me, and I can hardly articulate them, so I use photography to convey that which is not easily expressed.”

Where The Self Lives, an ongoing series of self-portraits that started in 2010, is rather less fractured than L’Absente. It’s a series of staged portraits – a form of choreography in which Labbé focuses on body, space and time.

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“I stage my body in a specific environment, and play with the medium to confuse the viewer. There is no particular message – I want viewers to make their own interpretation. I love to experiment with analogue photography, I love its imperfections.”

Labbé’s body of work, which is prolific and varied, perhaps holds a deeper meaning, one that is intimately connected to self-expression. “It provides a door through which to free one’s mind and escape the commonplace.

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“Today I feel much more grounded. I live in Nantes and am free to develop my work in both the fields of dance and photography. They are mutually enriching; they give me a sense of unity. I feel like I have found my place.”

Aëla Labbé’s work was most recently exhibitied in a solo exhibition at Le Monte En L’air in Paris. She is the recipient of the Jury Price at Kiernan Gallery in Washington and has been featured in numerous magazines, among which is Shots, Yaso in Japan, and Off the Wall.

Visit Labbé’s website